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Wolf budget includes $100K for Marcellus Shale health registry

In his budget plan unveiled Tuesday, Governor Wolf proposed a $100,000 funding increase to the state Department of Health to create a registry to monitor people who live near natural gas drilling sites.

After New York State banned fracking late last year, citing public health concerns, Wolf said he planned to create a registry to monitor health complaints in Pennsylvania. States with significant oil and gas development handle public health issues differently. Colorado currently maintains an online public database of drilling-related complaints.

Public health advocates are encouraged by Wolf’s plan, but say $100,000 is not nearly enough money. Dr. Ruth McDermott-Levy teaches public health at Villanova University.

“It’s seed money to get a health registry started,” she says. “But to consider the long term health impacts, then more money is going to need to be committed.”

A spokeswoman for the state Department of Health said details about how the registry would work have not been determined yet.

Last June two former state health workers accused Pennsylvania of deliberately ignoring complaints. They said they were given a list of 19 drilling-related buzzwords including “fracking”, “natural gas,” and “cancer cluster.” If someone called the Department of Health and used any of those words, they were told to refer that person to the agency’s Bureau of Epidemiology. It’s unclear where the complaints went from there. The department disputed the workers’ account and said it followed up on the calls.

Wolf’s proposed registry isn’t the only effort in Harrisburg to increase oversight into potential Marcellus Shale-related health issues.

Last week a state Senate committee approved SB 375. The bill was introduced by Senate President Pro-Tempore Joe Scarnati (R- Jefferson) and would create a nine-member panel to examine oil and gas-related health impacts.

Note: this story has been updated to include reaction to the proposal and a comment from the Health Department.

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